The head of the Canberra Tradies Club group says $3.8 million the club gave the CFMEU after the Dickson land swap deal was "absolutely coincidental" and had no relationship to the $3.9 million the government paid the club.
Club group chief executive Rob Docker also told an ACT Legislative Assembly committee inquiry into the controversial 2014 land deal there was "no impropriety" on the part of the club in the transaction.
It was the first time Mr Docker has publicly commented on the controversial deal, during an at-times fiery hearing, in which he also criticised the media for what he claimed was "very, very one-sided" reporting on it.
The auditor-general found the government gave the club "significant concessions", worth up to $2.65 million, but Mr Docker rejected that characterisation.
He said the audit office had based the calculations on a valuation that was only an "opinion", which he believed was too high and did not indicate the true market value of the land to potential buyers.
The land swap involved the government selling a carpark outside the Dickson club to the club, and the club in return selling two blocks of land it owned to the government. The government allowed the club to keep leasing one of the blocks that the club sold for 42 months rent-free.
While the government paid the club $3.9 million for the two blocks it bought, the club has not yet settled on the carpark, some three and a half years later, as settlement was conditional on another development being completed in Dickson.
Asked about a Canberra Times report last year revealing the club transferred the $3.8 million to the union in the months after it received funds from the government, Mr Docker said it had "no relationship whatsoever" to the deal.
When committee chairwoman, Liberals MLA Vicki Dunne asked the question, Labor MLA Bec Cody asked what relationship it had to the audit, to which Ms Dunne said she was asking the questions, and the committee would know once it received an answer.
Mr Docker said the club's core object was to provide support to the union, and despite money being transferred "from time to time" to the union, it had "no bearing whatsoever in regard to this transaction".
"I don’t understand why I would receive that question here today," he said, possibly referring to the fact the issue had not been examined in the audit.
Mr Docker said the transfer to the union had been "totally and absolutely coincidental" and it had "absolutely nothing to do with the land deal".
He also said it was deeply disappointing the land deal had been misrepresented and the debate had turned into political point-scoring at the club's expense.
Mr Docker said allegations had been made of potential favouritism, but insisted the audit office found "absolutely no evidence to substantiate this allegation".
The audit found a significant lack of documentation in the former Land Development Agency's files about the deal, though Mr Docker said he had pristine records, some of which he shared with auditors, but which were "commercial in confidence".
He also said while he had been kept abreast of the negotiations throughout the frustrating, two-year long talks, the club's former chief financial officer, Stephen Brennan, had run the negotiation for the club.
Mr Docker also rejected the audit finding that so many concessions were made after the club was chosen as the successful tenderer that the deal amounted to a "direct sale".
Mr Docker said that from the club's point of view, the deal had been "an entirely ordinary transaction" and the audit report's finding the concessions amounted to a loss for the government was wrong.
He said despite the club disagreeing with a valuation of the carpark the government sought, it had still gone on to offer more for the land, and had been able to offer the other blocks, something he said no other party had been able to offer the government.
"There was no direct sale and no impropriety in the negotiations," he said.
Mr Docker also said that given there were only two tenderers, out of 20 parties who expressed interest in the land, it was "entirely unsurprising the Tradies were selected", as the club offered better value for money for the government.
He also told the committee the media had run reports on the deal that he believed were "very, very one-sided" and he felt sensational reporting had led to the debate being "almost like fiction becoming fact".
But he said while the media had come to him throughout this process, he had refused to engage because he believed the club should not be "doing its business on the front page".
At the end of the hearing, Opposition Leader Alistair Coe asked Ms Cody and committee member Michael Pettersson, who are both CFMEU members, whether they had a conflict of interest in the matter.
Both politicians said it was inappropriate to ask members of the committee questions.
The inquiry continues.
Clarification: This article previously stated the scope of the audit office's work was limited to public sector entities. That reference has been removed, as the audit office does have powers to investigate non-public entities in some circumstances.
Daniel Burdon is a reporter for The Canberra Times